US State Department Reports Religious Freedoms Violations in Bahrain in 2021

2022-10-14 - 1:03 م

Bahrain Mirror: On June 2, 2022, the U.S. State Department published its 2021 Report on International Religious Freedom: Bahrain. What is clear after reading this report is the ruling family in Bahrain uses religious discrimination as a tool in the preservation of its authoritarianism and employs public displays of inter-religious co-existence to overshadow its human rights abuses, Americans for Democracy and Human Rights n Bahrain stated. 

The organizations stressed that religious discrimination by the Sunni monarchy against Shia citizens is severe to the point that U.S. government officials, the Charge d'Affaires, and other embassy representatives met with senior government officials, including the Foreign Minister and the Minister of Justice, Islamic Affairs, and Endowments, and national human rights monitoring institutions to urge respect for freedom of religion and expression, including the right of religious leaders to speak and write freely, and to advocate for the full and equal participation of all citizens, irrespective of religious or political affiliation, in political and social activities and economic opportunities.

Approximately 51 specific individual cases of religious repression, discrimination, or harassment committed by the government of Bahrain during 2021 are included in this report; many more cover general government actions. These were all committed against Shia Muslims and almost all infused with political motivations.

Under the Government Practices section of the report, the opening and stand-alone sentence is telling of the tyranny in Bahrain: "Because religion and political affiliation are often closely linked, it was difficult to categorize many incidents as being solely based on religious identity." Religious discrimination is pursued by the monarchy as a means of political control.

The U.S. State Department report includes that "the government continued to discriminate against Shia citizens and to give Sunni citizens preferential treatment for scholarships and positions in the MOI and military." This is a consistent theme throughout. Religious discrimination against Shia Muslims has created a discriminatory imbalance in the labor force, military, political bodies, and civil society. The evidence of religious discrimination suffered by Shia in the country are "persistently higher unemployment rates, limited prospects for upward social mobility, and lower socioeconomic status for that community compared with the Sunni population."

The State Department acknowledged in its report that U.S. officials have "advocated for the government to pursue political reforms that would take into consideration the needs of all citizens regardless of religious affiliation."

The ruling family in Bahrain, the Al Khalifa family, are Sunni Muslim while the majority of the country's citizens (approximately 65% according to the State Department) are Shia Muslim. Between the country's constitution and the Sharia, citizens of Bahrain - on paper - have rights and guarantees to freedom of conscience, the inviolability of places of worship, freedom to perform religious rites, and freedom to express and publish opinions. In practice, however, these rights either do not exist or are only selectively safeguarded by the government; the long list of abuses perpetrated by the government - many which are identified in the State Department report - could lead a reasonable observer to the conclusion that the rights enumerated in the country's laws are only performative disguises designed to grant the Bahraini ruling family access to the benefits of friendship with western democracies.

The State Department report cites the government's interference and harassment targeted on Shia worshippers during Ashura, one of the most significant days of the Shia religious calendar; the report notes criticism directed toward the government for removing Ashura banners and "summoning Shia leaders for questioning in connection with sermons they gave during the observance." One account in the report states the government investigated 100 citizens and arrested three for "practicing their religion" with 45 government operations to disrupt Shia religious rituals.

The State Department details multiple accounts of how the government "effectively repressed Ashura practice and expression," denied Shia prisoners the right to celebrate the holiday and punished those who persisted and performed their religious rituals with isolation from contact with their families. During Ramadan, the report notes that one NGO recorded "one incident of harassment, one incident of threat, and nine incidents in which authorities prevented religious practice."

The government justification for this religious repression was based on Covid-19 prevention; however, the State Department report includes an account of the King's son, Shaikh Nasser bin Hamad Al Khalifa, publicly "joining in the Indian Onam festival, among large crowds, without employing any obvious public health measures."

Religious repression is almost inseparable from political persecution. The followers of religions other than Shia Islam are granted a wonderful religious freedom and in conformity with the letter of the law. In practice, this helps shield the monarchy from critiques by the international community, something which could expose the ruling family to greater criticism for its other human rights abuses. The victims of religious repression in Bahrain are almost exclusively the people who could challenge the tyranny and authoritarianism of the ruling family.

The rights which are allowed by the country's constitution come with the stipulation of only existing so long as they do not infringe on "public order". The current public order of Bahrain is based on the authoritarian rule of one family. The guarantees to the rights of expression and opinion are only allowed so long as they do not "arouse discord or sectarianism" - which really means so long as expression and opinion do not disturb the comfortability of the ruling family and do not create a different type of sectarianism than the one they have already created. This is identical to the monarchy dictating its ability to ban any publication, by ministerial order, that "prejudices the ruling system of the country." As is similar in other authoritarian governments, the law of the land protects the status quo of the ruling dictator and not the rights of the country's people to life, liberty, or happiness.

Religious groups are caught in the same stranglehold which the rest of Bahraini civil society has been chained. In Bahrain, groups must register their existence with a government ministry who is given authority by the ruling family to monitor the group's activities. All religious groups "wishing to collect money must first obtain authorization" from the government. All groups are prohibited from "engaging in politics'" (or any activity which could loosen the ruling family's hold on power and change the country). Also noted is that the law prohibits any person from engaging in politics (opposition political societies are banned) while performing clerical duties at a religious institution.

Arabic Version